BETTER WAYS TO TRAVEL
RJ Furth (October, 2011)
My parents were experienced travelers. Besides annual trips to England and France for over thirty years (my dad exported to both countries, though the trips were flimsy, unnecessary excuses to visit friends, and eat and drink well), they also traveled to Japan, China, and Malaysia. The Japan trip occurred in the early sixties, the trip to China and Malaysia in the early eighties. My dad planned these trips months in advance, and they packed light, caring appropriate clothes for the country and weather, and never more than what they needed and could carry comfortably. They loved these trips and might have continued traveling except for two things: age and the disaster of September 11, 2001. Age had altered their travel, with shorter trips to familiar places and a significant reduction in food and alcohol. September 11 effectively ended their international, and eventually domestic, travel. It wasn’t fear of terrorism that ended their love affair with travel; rather, it was the hassle and humiliation of airport security. In particular, my father hated removing his shoes and walking in socks in a public place. In fact, my father hated removing his shoes in my house (we’ve haven’t worn shoes in our homes since living in Malaysia 1981-83) and always insisted on keeping them on. With long lines and emptying carefully packed carry-ons and the other nonsense we go through at US airports, travel was no longer a pleasure and so my parents stopped traveling.
I’ll state my views on security at US airports up front: They are ridiculous. Yes, some security is necessary, but the invasive, hostile searches that occur are over the top and knee jerk reactions to past attempts at terrorism. Explosives in one pair of shoes and everybody removes their shoes. (I saw a comedian who lamented that the explosives had not been hidden in a woman’s bra.) An attempt to smuggle liquid explosives and no more liquids in carry-ons. Yet, thick books are never opened, although you could pack a lot of dangerous materials in a hefty novel, or even a bible. And what about trains, buses and subways, all of which have been subjected to terrorist attacks. What about sporting events and concerts? Terrorists can strike anywhere, yet it is only at airports—and specifically US airports—that we are regularly hassled. (I’ve experienced thorough security in the Philippines and England, but not as invasive as in the US.) I travel a lot and I’m not about to stop, but it does make me consider my options. Recently I’ve experienced forms of travel where security was in place, yet not nearly as offensive as security at US airports. There are, in many cases, better ways to travel.
Sandy and I recently traveled from England to France by ferry. Except for the occasional wave of seasickness (I’ve had a few queasy moments on ships), this was a lovely way to travel. We took the London tube from our flat in Maida Vale to Waterloo station, about ten stops and 25 minutes, followed by a pleasant two hour train to Portsmouth that afforded lovely views of the verdant English countryside. A short taxi ride took us to the ferry terminal where we boarded the Brittany ferry. Our bags went through a metal detector before we boarded the ferry, otherwise there were no searches, no removal of shoes, no questions regarding who packed our bags or whether we were carrying dangerous items. Our seats were comfortable on all legs of the journey and the views were memorable (except on the tube, which is underground). We could stretch our legs on the train and ferry, and go for short strolls. Approaching both coasts—Normandy in France, south coast of England—created an air of excitement and expectation that is impossible to achieve in an airplane. Admittedly, this form of travel can be expensive, even traveling economy as we did. Trains in England are not cheap, nor is the ferry. It would have cost less to take the tube to London City Airport and fly to Normandy, but the trip would have been less pleasant, security more invasive. I’ve taken the ferry before and will gladly do so again.
Like the great travel writer Paul Theroux, I too am a fan of train travel. (If you haven’t read his masterpiece, The Great Railway Bazaar, or this other train books, The Old Patagonian Express and Riding The Red Rooster, you should.) If you’ve done much train travel you will understand why Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express. Train travel is a great way to see a country. There is no road rage, no traffic jams (well, maybe a few; I was stuck in central Turkey for four hours due to a train backup), no falling asleep at the wheel. Some trains even serve decent food or, for a real cultural experience, you can pick up food during brief stops at stations or buy from vendors who scurry aboard to sell local fruit or fried grasshoppers (Burma). I’ve taken trains from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, Tehran to Istanbul, Rome to Paris, New Delhi to Bangalore and dozens others, and I would recommend nearly all. Two exceptions might be a train from Rangoon to Mandalay (old train with apparently no shock absorbers, one of the roughest rides I’ve ever experienced) and Kerala to Karnataka in southern India (filthy and filled with mosquitoes, it was a nightmare). Security is not an issue. Even the Eurostar from London to Paris, which might seem a high profile target for terrorists, only features an x-ray of bags. Passengers are not searched.
Flying remains the fastest and, often, least expensive way to travel. When the US government stops worrying about being accused of being soft on terrorism and gets real about airport security, it may become far less unpleasant to fly in or out of the US. This essay was prompted by a recent flight from Amsterdam to London. Sandy and I were returning from visiting a friend and we were pleasantly surprised by how calm, friendly and noninvasive the security was at Schiphol airport. Our tickets and passports were checked, then we walked to the terminal without any security. To our surprise there was security at each individual gate. This meant that, rather than line up with hundreds of people rushing to get to their gate, we stood in line with only a few dozen people, each stepping into line as they reached the gate. Our carry-on bags went through the usual x-ray. The security person looked at our shoes and allowed us to keep them on unless they were bulky boots. Our liquids were not checked. We removed our belts only if they had large metallic buckles. We were politely told to step through the x-ray machine and then thanked. That’s right, the security people thanked us for our cooperation. Think about it: more people employed at security to reduce the stress of the workers (reducing unemployment), individualized screening for greater security and greater courtesy, shoes left on their feet, reduced tension because people have already reached their gates.
I have not discussed buses because they rarely offer a better form of travel. I’ve ridden many long distance buses over the years (across Sumatra, Afghanistan and southern India, to name a few) and they often feature rough roads, traffic jams, small seats, and innumerable stops. No mode of transport is the best nor the worst. The decision to take a particular mode of transport must be based on many factors: cost, time, scenery on offer. What I do know is that it is unnecessary to treat flyers in the US as if they were dangerous cattle. It is pointless to prod, search, x-ray and hassle every single person flying the ‘friendly’ skies. If Homeland Security insists on continuing to treat me as a potential threat rather than an honest citizen, I may consider crossing the Atlantic by ocean liner. I suppose I can use the time to write more essays, though I’m not sure if my stomach could handle a week at sea. I eagerly await a Star Trek type of matter transporter than will send my molecules to Bangkok in five seconds. That would be a better way to travel, assuming that all of my molecules arrive in good condition and are put back together in the correct order. In the meantime, I’ll keep my shoelaces untied.